Herb Profile: Holy Basil

This basil packs more of a peppery punch than its relative herbs, but it can also function as a stress-relieving tea or a powerful antioxidant.

Herb And Spice Companion cover

“Herb & Spice Companion: The Complete Guide to Over 100 Herbs & Spices” by Lindsay Herman

Photo courtesy of Wellfleet Press

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When it comes to cooking, the sheer variety of herbs and spices can be overwhelming. With all the powders, jars, and plants available, how do you know what to buy and when to use it? When is fresh better than dry? Should you eat the stems, the leaves, the roots? In Herb & Spice Companion, Lindsay Herman has created an accessible guide to seasonings, with over one hundred profiles of the most-used herbs and spices across the globe. As exampled here with holy basil, Herman provides a comprehensive look at each plant’s history, how to prep and serve and store the seasoning, and how to grow your own herbs from seed to harvest. That’s not even mentioning her instructions on various techniques for drying, freezing, frying, mixing, crushing, and chopping that are both brilliant and simple. A book for everyone, from cooks just starting out to old pros adding excitement to their dishes, Herb & Spice Companion is a must for any kitchen.

Holy Basil

Ocimum sanctum or Ocimum tenuiflorum
Other common names: Bai Gaprow or Tulasi
Flavors: spicy and peppery, with cloves, peppermint, and licorice

Called bai gaprow in Thai and tulasi in Sanskrit, holy basil is a spicy variant of the sweet basil plant. In India, the plant is indeed “holy”: Devout Hindus use it in their daily worship practices and many homes have a tulasi plant on their property.

With a pungent, hot flavor, holy basil is a top choice for hearty, meaty curries. Raw leaves are not recommended for eating, as the flavor really comes out through cooking. And that flavor is intense: Use in smaller quantities than you would with Thai basil.

Health Benefits

Holy basil is a prominent herb in Ayurveda, revered for millennia as a stress reliever and immune booster. Often sipped as a tea, it’s believed to help the body manage physical and emotional stress. Holy basil has been used widely for its antioxidant, antibacterial, and anti-inflammatory properties, as treatment for colds, bronchitis, asthma, fever, stomach upset, arthritis, and headaches.

In the Garden

Holy basil is a tropical perennial that grows healthily indoors in a pot or container; place in a sun-filled window.

Size: 12 to 18 inches tall
Container: 2 gallons
Light: Full sun
Soil: Rich, fertile, well drained
Plant: Seeds, seedlings, or transplants
Water: Regularly, when soil feels dry to the touch; do not overwater. Water the plant around the base, and not over the leaves, which will cause them to yellow.
Harvest: Harvest regularly to promote regrowth: Gently pinch off outer leaves or snip with garden shears.
Care: Snip off any flowers as you notice them to promote new leaf growth and prevent seeding. In cool climates, bring plants inside before the first frost in fall or winter.

Drying Tip

If fresh isn’t available, dried holy basil can be an adequate (though not perfect) substitute, but you’ll need to mix in some fresh Thai basil, too. To soften the dried leaves, place them in a cold-water bath for ten to fifteen minutes and remove the stems. Combine with fresh Thai basil leaves to your desired taste.

In the Kitchen

Dishes: Stir-fries, curries, fried rice, drunken noodles
Prep: Use whole leaves or tear them into smaller pieces before adding to a dish.
Serve: Along with garlic, fish sauce, and fresh chili peppers, holy basil is one of the signature seasonings in Thai stir-fries. The intense herb also gives fire to meaty curries, as well as fish, tofu, and a variety of Asian veggies.

Pairings

Fruits and Vegetables: baby corn, bamboo shoots, bean sprouts, broccoli, cabbage, carrots, celery, coconut milk, eggplant, green beans, mango, mushrooms, onions, pineapple, potatoes, radishes, scallions, shallots, snap peas, tomatoes, zucchini
Proteins: beef, cashews, chicken, duck, eggs, fish and seafood, peanuts, pork, tofu
Seasonings: chili peppers, cilantro, cumin, curry powder and paste, fish sauce, galangal, garlic, ginger, lemongrass, lemon juice, lime juice, makrut lime, mint, red pepper flakes, soy sauce, tamarind, turmeric, vanilla

Substitutions

• Thai basil + mint
• Thai basil + black pepper
• Basil + mint
• Basil + black pepper
• Basil + red pepper flakes

Find more examples of Lindsay Herman’s herb and spice profiles:

Lemongrass
Chervil
Fenugreek Seeds

Or learn general tips and techniques from her book in “Seasoning with Herbs and Spices”.
Reprinted with permission from
Herb & Spice Companion: The Complete Guide to Over 100 Spices and Herbsby Lindsay Herman, published by Wellfleet Press, an imprint of Quarto Publishing, 2015.